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Harmonic Festival 2010, Birmingham, 13/03/2010


by Ian Mann

March 16, 2010


Saturday at the Harmonic Festival. A showcase for local and not so local talent across a wide range of jazz styles

Saturday at Birmingham’s exciting new festival was scheduled to begin with a free open air performance by the organ trio MC3 at the bandstand in Brindley Place. After such an appalling winter the organisers were probably being a little over optimistic here and in view of the cold, bleak weather conditions the music was re-located at short notice to the nearby Slug & Lettuce pub.

The mysterious MC3 turned out to be a trio led by guitarist Matt Chandler, originally from Derbyshire but now based in London. Chandler’s album “After Midnight” recorded with drummer Ian Beestin and Pinski Zoo bassist Karl Bingham is reviewed elsewhere on this site.

Today Chandler appeared with two final year students from the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course. Organist Matt Ratcliffe has already appeared on record as a member of saxophonist James Tartaglia’s Free Funk Assembly with the album “Dark Metaphysic” being reviewed elsewhere on this site. Drummer Tymek Jozwiak is a versatile player who was to be heard in a free jazz setting later in the day. Here he functioned superbly as one third of a swinging, grooving trio in the best organ combo tradition.

The Slug & Lettuce was perhaps not the ideal situation for the band. The place was packed with diners taking a break from the Saturday shopping and in truth not many of them were paying the music much attention. For myself I rather enjoyed it, relaxing over a coffee as the trio breezed their way through a set of standards including “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”, “Summertime” ,“My One And Only Love” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues”. The hubbub of the other customers was drowned out just enough by the band to render the music enjoyable and the chatter was not overly obtrusive. I’d say they’d got the volume level just right although the pub management were a bit twitchy about it.

Twitchy but in a different way were a couple of young children, a girl of around four and her younger brother who were happily dancing to the music. The little girl was clearly already a disco veteran, she certainly had all the moves.

A shorter second set featured a programme of Chandler originals in the Hammond tradition. These swinging, hard grooving pieces included “Funky DL” , “L’il Devil”, “Five Bars Short” and “Dirty Rat”. Chandler and Ratcliffe proved themselves to be skilful soloists and supportive rhythm players urged on from behind by Jozwiak’s crisp, swinging drumming. This is a highly competent young band whose two enjoyable sets deserved a less indifferent audience. The group are due to appear at the Mostly Jazz Festival to be held in Birmingham’s Moseley Park in July. Hopefully they will get more of a jazz listening audience there. Chandler hopes to record the trio at some point, ideally when his two young colleagues have completed their studies. In the meantime the guitarist is off to Austin Texas for the South by South West Festival playing behind singer songwriter Helen Bolden. Should be a great trip, I wish him well.


Moon Unit is the name of the septet led by trumpeter Aaron Diaz. Formerly Zappajazz the band originally convened to play the music of Frank Zappa but now concentrates in the main on original pieces in the Zappa spirit composed by members of the group. They got Harmonic’s evening programme at the CBSO centre off to a rousing and noisy start.

Most of the musicians are current or former members of the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course with Diaz being joined by Nick Rundle on tenor sax, Colin Mills on baritone, Rob Anstey on electric bass, Tom Durham on guitar, Andy Bunting on piano and finally Jim Bashford at the drums.

The septet make a big sound and demonstrated their capabilities on Mills’ composition “Newsmass” with solos coming from leader Diaz, rock influenced guitarist Durham and the belligerent tenor saxist Rundle.

Diaz’s own “Hoop Garden” deployed halting stop/start rhythms with solos coming from Diaz, Mills and Bunting.

“Zombie Woof” came from the pen of Zappa himself and featured the heavily distorted guitar of Durham and the dirty sounding horns of Diaz and Rundle over some ferocious riffing. The tenor player then proved himself capable of some unexpected tenderness on his own composition “Moonshine”. Rundle’s tune also featured the flowing piano of Bunting and the liquid electric bass of Rob Anstey.

Diaz’s “Zellaby” was inspired by a character in the Birmingham born author John Wyndham’s book “The Midwich Cuckoos”. The music featured tricky, boppish trumpet lines skilfully played by Diaz over Bashford’s solid back-beat. Very much a feature for the composer the piece later deployed ghostly, high register trumpet in an attempt to capture something of the sinister atmosphere of Wyndham’s book. Rundle was the other featured soloist in this highly descriptive piece of writing.

Bunting switched to Rhodes for the Zappa-esque riffing of Durham’s “Six Hours”, the band’s final number. Bunting took the first solo followed by Mills on powerful baritone, the saxophonist later joining forces with Diaz and Rundle for some tricky counterpoint horn lines.

Occasionally Moon Unit were a little ragged but by tackling the famously complex music of Zappa they have set the bar pretty high for themselves and in the main they acquitted themselves well.


Mapp and Pursglove came up with an inspired idea to fill the downtime caused by the changeover of bands in the main hall. A series of duets between musicians of the Birmingham based Cobweb Collective took place in CBSO bar area starting off with the twin Rhodes pianos of young Dan Nicholls and the older Steve Tromans. Nicholls made quite an impression leading his own group at Cheltenham Jazz Festival a couple of years ago.

Here the unusual keyboard pairing played three pieces by Nicholls specifically written for this event. “Mist- Parts 1 & 2” and “Kinski” (dedicated to the late actor Klaus) featured the kind of interlocking Reichian patterns Tromans had played the previous evening as part of an extended Claudia Quintet.

Sometimes twinkling and ethereal, at others almost funky the two keyboard experiment was absorbing and successful and at three numbers just the right length. It was certainly an original and enjoyable way to fill the time between the more formal events on the main stage.


Festival co-director Chris Mapp led his own group Gambol in a series of original compositions inspired by Mapp’s experiences of life in Birmingham. Mapp led the group from the electric bass, the other members comprising of Sam Wooster on trumpet, Lluis Mather on tenor sax,Rob Norman on piano and Nord keyboard and a busy Jim Bashford playing his second gig of the evening on drums. Mapp also integrated samples, transcribed speech and found sounds into his writing the resulting sound canvas being a vivid and personal musical representation of life in the Second City.

“Blues Blues” was a reference to Birmingham City FC (the Villa didn’t get a look in) and proved to be a spirited opener containing features for all the members of the band with Norman on funky electric keyboards.

“Royal By Name” honoured a former curry house on the Stratford Road and featured the sampled sound of a sizzling balti dish. Norman remained on Nord and introduced the piece which featured the breathy flute of Mather and the treated trumpet sounds of Wooster which had the air of a Henriksen or a Molvaer about them.

“Second Hand Telly” acknowledged the legendarily awful voice over Telly Savalas did on a promotional film for the Bull Ring back in the 1970’s. Sampled voices from the famous Bull Ring markets peppered the track with solos coming from Norman on Tynerish acoustic piano, Mather on tenor and Anstey on electric bass.

“Bill’s Mother’s” contained more spooky treated trumpet with Wooster’s loops, sound washes and electronica running throughout the piece alongside Bashford’s drum groove. Norman featured on acoustic piano and Mather on tenor in this item dedicated to a figure of Black Country speech.

Finally “Locals” acknowledged the “nutter on the bus” (or in the pub) that exists in all English cities-and small towns too, come to that. Grooving and cerebrally funky the piece featured the normally lyrical Mather squalling in conjunction with Wooster before Bashford weighed in with an imaginative drum solo.

I rather enjoyed Gambol. Mapp’s writing was colourful, imaginative and often quirky and his bass playing formed an integral part of the arrangements. His young band was tight and well drilled and at a guess had benefited from some rehearsal time. Let’s hope he can get this music recorded, perhaps on the Birmingham based Rehab label, home to Chris Bowden’s Tomorrow band among others.


Back in the bar young singer Holly Thomas performed an enjoyable set accompanied only by the acoustic guitar of Toby Carpenter. An appreciative, listening audience enjoyed a selection of standards that featured Thomas’ pure vocals and the clean guitar picking of Carpenter. Tunes included “My Funny Valentine” Jobim’s “How Insensitive”, Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood”  plus the more up tempo closer “Afro Blue”.  The young duo received a very warm reception and it’s likely that we’ll be hearing a lot more of Holly Thomas.


In the main hall the experienced Birmingham based vocalist Sara Colman took to the stage with a highly accomplished band featuring double bassist and musical director Ben Markland, drummer Carl Hemmingsley plus Chris Taylor on piano and keyboards.

Colman has a warm, powerful voice and her singing is often blues tinged but also with a strong pop sensibility. Most of the material performed here appears on her album “Ready”, a diverse collection of songs that touches all her bases and influences.

Colman is an assured performer, confident and professional and she led her band through two pieces from the album “Get You Gone” and the old Stealer’s Wheel hit “Stuck In the Middle With You” here driven by Markland’s rich bass groove. The MD allowed himself plenty of solo space and displayed the same power and fluency as he had the previous day with his own quintet. Taylor also proved an accomplished soloist enlivening “Stuck” with an arresting keyboard feature.

Colman is also a songwriter and a number of her own compositions were distributed throughout the set including the following “Between You And Me”. However it was the outside material that made for the most memorable performances particularly a beautiful version of Joni Mitchell’s “How Do You Stop” from the “Turbulent Indigo” album. Colman dedicated the Mitchell tune to Birmingham Jazz supremo Tony Dudley Evans who was seated in the audience.

Nearly as fine was Colman’s version of Walter Becker’s “Book Of Liars”, a typically Steely Dan-ish tune with a sweet melody and a barbed lyric. 

I was less keen on the Everley Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” delivered here as a blues inflected jazz shuffle. Taylor’s exuberant piano solo, pounding and percussive, went some way to salvaging things. It was difficult to believe that he’d just flown in from a trip to Japan that morning.

The set finished with three Colman originals. The singer is currently studying for an MA in song-writing and her “Happy Song” a solo vocal and piano performance was written as an exercise for the course. Colman apologised for it sounding “a bit country-ish” and “a bit Carpenters-ish” but it was pleasant enough. It’s certainly true that it’s easier to write miserable songs than happy ones.

Bookending this were the blues shuffle of “Supernatural” and the full on bluesiness of “Bidin’ My Time” which contained features for the instrumentalists including spot on drummer Hemmingsley.

There’s no doubt that Colman and her band are are a class act and they were well received by the audience, many of whom had come specifically to see her. Much of it was a bit too smooth and poppy for my personal tastes but I can fully understand Colman’s appeal to others.


There was nothing smooth and poppy about what was to come. Whilst the London based free improvising trio of Paul Dunmall, John Edwards and Mark Sanders were setting up in the main hall two of Birmingham’s young improvisers were blowing up a storm in the bar.

Mapp and Pursglove had carefully set up the duos to complement the events in the main hall. Thus the experimentation of Nicholls and Tromans was a suitable curtain raiser for the similarly inclined Gambol. Colman fans had the chance to check out an up and coming singer in Holly Thomas and the hard core free improv fans who turned up for Dunmall and his colleagues got a nice little taster from Rundle and Jozwiak.

Rundle on tenor and Jozwiak on drums blasted and clattered their way through two entirely improvised pieces with commendable physical resourcefulness. Foghorn tenor sax and thunderous drums played variously with sticks and soft head mallets made for a potent improvisational cocktail. The duo’s blend of free jazz was enthusiastically applauded by a receptive festival audience. These two talented young men are likely to become substantial figures on the Birmingham scene and perhaps further afield too.


These London based musicians are veterans of the free improv scene with literally dozens of recordings under their collective belts. I’d seen tenor saxophonist Dunmall in action before at the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival as part of the Profound Sound Trio with veteran American improvisers Henry Grimes (bass, violin) and Andrew Cyrille (drums, percussion). The Cheltenham performance was little short of astonishing and I was very much looking forward to seeing Dunmall again.

Edwards (double bass) and Sanders (drums) provided a similar instrumental configuration with Dunmall adding clarinet and bagpipes to his arsenal, at Cheltenham he’d remained glued to his tenor throughout.

The trio began here with Sanders’ cymbal splashes soon joined by Edwards on arco bass and Dunmall on fluttering tenor. My co-writer Tim Owen has seen Edwards play many times but this was my first glimpse of him. The bassist is a flamboyant performer and I was immediately struck by the almost physical relationship he has with his instrument. Edwards is all over the bass, one moment plucking, the other feverishly bowing, then there’s the striking of the instrument for percussive effect and the dramatic flamenco style strumming. Edwards switches between these styles in the blink of an eye, constantly adapting to what’s going on around him. He even bows below the bridge and also adds some judicious electronic distortion. It’s exhausting watching him and the sounds he gets from his instrument are extraordinary, God only knows what it’s like up there on the bandstand. With his super animated style the bassist was soon perspiring profusely even on an unseasonably cold March evening.

Sanders too is a dramatic and relentless performer, the understanding between him and Edwards is almost telepathic and the obligatory drum and bass interludes when Dunmall took a breather were unfailingly interesting. Even Sanders’ solo drum feature was engrossing as he detached his hi-hat, used a bow on his cymbals and made effective use of a battery of cowbells.

In the first shifting magnum opus Dunmall played clarinet as well as tenor which made for effective tonal variation and a balance of light and shade. Much of what these three play is pretty uncompromising and full on but there are moments of great subtlety too.

Dunmall’s bagpipes added a woozy, folky element to the music. They’re not the Scottish type and I’m not sure of their origin, Northumbria and Galicia suggest themselves but I wasn’t able to speak to the great man to find out. If you read this Paul maybe you can let me know. 

After the piping interlude Dunmall moved back to clarinet for an astonishing solo but it’s his stream of consciousness tenor work that he’s best noted before and his playing was peerless here. A word too for the lighting engineer who seemed to be reacting empathically to what was going on on-stage.

The trio weren’t to everyone’s taste. One or two customers left early clearly unmoved by this remarkable music. It’s not an easy listen but in a live context it’s often a very rewarding one. The trio’s first improvisation clocked in at around the forty minute mark and sadly I was only able to catch a fleeting part of the second before having to leave to catch the last train home. Dunmall’s unaccompanied tenor had certainly got things off to a very promising start.

I was sorry to miss the closing stages of what had been an enjoyable and absorbing festival featuring a good mix of promising youngsters and experienced professionals and covering a wide range range of jazz styles, some cutting edge, others less so. As a showcase for the Birmingham scene Harmonic was a success, certainly in artistic terms. The audience turn out on Saturday was rather disappointing and I hope that any financial implications that result from that don’t prevent the festival happening next year. For the quality of the music alone Harmonic deserves another chance.

Musically the highlight for me was undoubtedly the Claudia Quintet (and friends) with Chris Mapp’s Gambol the pick of the local groups.

My thanks to Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove for putting together such a stimulating musical weekend. I hope to be back for more of the same next year

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